Expert's view: Why femicide is endemic in Kenya

Femicide protest

Nakuru residents, human rights activists and County Government of Nakuru staff march along Kenyatta Avenue in Nakuru City on February 14, 2024 to protest against femicide. 

Photo credit: Boniface Mwangi | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • In January 2024 alone, at least 10 women were murdered. 
  • In 2023, Femicide Count Kenya recorded a staggering 152 killings.

On the morning of Thursday, January 4, 2024, one of the most gruesome murders in Kenyan history unfolded when the body of 26-year-old Starlet Wahu was discovered in a short-stay rental apartment in South B, Nairobi.

Her body was discovered by the owner of the apartment who unlocked the room with a spare key and was confronted with the unspeakable sight of Wahu's body covered in her blood.

John Matara, the prime suspect in her murder, had by then fled the scene.

Several women subsequently recorded statements with the police against Matara.

Circumstances and further investigation led to the conclusion that Matara had met his victims through online dating sites, the same way he had met Starlet.

The sinister motive for the murder, the lingering thought in the minds of most Kenyans since the beginning of the New Year: Who would have the guts to commit such a premeditated and ungodly act on an innocent woman?

And more importantly, why? 

It has been nothing short of hair-raising for our women to walk the streets of Kenya with nothing but pure fear of becoming the next victim.

It's almost as if it has become the norm, femicide, the horrific act that has made the streets unsafe for all women across the country. 

In January 2024 alone, at least 10 women were murdered. To put this in perspective, at least 500 women and girls have been murdered in Kenya since 2016, according to the Africa Data Hub. 

In 2023, Femicide Count Kenya recorded a staggering 152 killings, the highest number recorded in the last five years.

Since its launch in 2019, Femicide Count Kenya has recorded incidents of women being murdered by stabbing, mutilation, beating, pouring petrol on them and setting on fire. A large number of these victims were in their 20s and 30s.

Further research has revealed that most of these horrific killings are fuelled by recurring patterns of physical and sexual violence; in this way, social norms such as the enforcement of male control and power over women have materially led to the unfortunate demise of Kenyan women. 

In today's world, it has become normal, common and obligatory for a man to open the door for a woman, pull out her chair during a dinner date and even pay the bill on a night out.

This has led to a sense of submission from women to men. 

A national survey conducted in 2022 revealed that more than one in three women in Kenya reported experiencing physical abuse in their lifetime. 

According to a United Nations (UN) report, this translates into an astonishing 41 per cent of married women having experienced physical violence.

I spoke to Dr Monicah Buyatsi Oundo, a professional psychologist and current Head of the Department of Social Sciences at Chuka University, and she believes that there is also the psychological aspect that plays a vital role in individuals committing such horrendous acts.

According to Dr Buyatsi, it is not at all normal for a mentally healthy person to harm another in the way that John Matara is alleged to have harmed Starlet Wahu. 

She even cited an experiment carried out on animals, particularly monkeys, which showed that a monkey is always driven to help its fellow animal, both in times of need and in times of joy.

Dr Buyatsi argues that humans are wired to be more empathetic than animals, hence the mental instability that leads to such crimes.

Most murderers, according to Dr Buyatsi, may not have had the proper moral upbringing as children, and the lack of awareness of the consequences of committing murder is prevalent in these individuals.

"It is the urgent duty of all parents to ensure that their children are fully acquainted with social, moral and spiritual values by the age of 17," she said.

In a large number of femicide cases, these victims met their eventual killer through online dating apps and other online platforms.

In two of January's most notable murders, the victims met their killers on online dating sites, including Wahu and university student Rita Waeni, whose body was also found in a short-stay rental in Nairobi's Roysambu area on January 14. 

In line with Dr Buyatsi's hypothesis, young women may not be well grounded in social values as most girls blindly reveal their daily lives on these social media platforms, allowing predators a breach of privacy and this is where online stalking begins. 

The element of desperation is strong in young women, due to a desire to conform to societal expectations. 

"Young women may stay in abusive relationships just to live up to the expectations of their peers," Dr Buyatsi argued. 

Dr Buyatsi has not lost hope, however, as she believes that there are ways to curb femicide that are within reach. 

Young people today are too exposed to social media and there is a need to teach them interpersonal skills because they are being raised indirectly through gadgets and they have not fully developed the full emotional perspective of life. 

They do not have the emotional awareness to recognise the deadly dangers of meeting strangers online.

Dr Buyatsi argues that instead of demonising gadgets and social media, we should empower our young people through our educational and religious systems.

In doing so, we may finally find a way to end femicide in Kenya.